Thursday, June 20, 2013 | 7:40 p.m.
Larry Ruvo has something to toast to. His decade-long legal crusade is coming to a close in his favor.
A jury on Thursday found that Orange County, Calif., resident Guy Azera knowingly stepped on liquor distributors' toes when he started selling upscale wines and champagnes in Nevada.
The jury found Azera owes $267,750 in damages as well as punitive damages.
Azera muttered, “Unreal,” moments after the verdict was read.
Ruvo, senior managing director for Nevada’s arm of Southern Wine & Spirits of America, launched the suit in 2002 accusing Azera’s company, Chateau Vegas, of violating his exclusive deal with select champagnes.
Years later, plaintiffs dragged in Azera’s Orange County company, Transat Trade, and moved to stop Azera from selling certain Bordeaux wines in addition to the champagnes.
Southern Wine was eventually awarded its exclusive rights in District Court in 2008 and the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the decision in 2011.
During the trial Azera’s attorney Duane Frizell painted Southern Wine as a gorilla trying to squeeze the small businessman and cut out the competition. During the trial, Frizell showed a slide with a photo of a frightened man being gripped by a gorilla.
Ruvo’s attorney, Leif Reid, contended that Azera schemed to undercut the competition by ignoring the law. Reid showed slides of people plugging their ears and putting their heads in holes ostrich-style.
"It's just been a smear campaign," Frizell said.
Frizell argued that until the court awarded exclusive rights to Southern Wine, everyone was at a loss as to what the law was, including the Department of Taxation.
Azera kept in close contact with the department, Frizell said.
"Would a person who disregards the law be calling the Department of Taxation and sending letters and trying to find out what his rights were? Is that someone who's just going to disregard the law?" Frizell asked during closing arguments.
The extensive legal clash has been a tremendous burden on Azera’s time, energy and business, Frizell said.
Azera was born in the Bordeaux region of France and learned the wine business by working in his family’s restaurant. He started Transat Trade in California after immigrating to the United States and decided to open Chateau Vegas in Las Vegas after several local buyers asked him to sell to them.
The defense cast Southern Wine as the out-of-state big business by trumpeting that Southern Wine is based in Florida. While Azera lives in Orange County he spends two to three days a week in Las Vegas, Frizell said.
Ruvo’s attorney, Reid, told the jury that both big and small businesses have rights.
Also working the local angle, Southern Wine employees packed Wednesday’s trial.
Reid attempted to tell the jury that Las Vegas residents were watching, gesturing to the crowd, but the judge ruled the statement out of line.
Maison Marques & Domaines, a Cristal distributor, is also named as a plaintiff in the suit and will get a $69,000 cut of the damages plus punitive damages.
The jury will meet Tuesday to hash out how much Azera must pay in punitive damages for fraud, oppression or malice.